Commonwealth War Graves Commission: A Brief History

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission honours the 1.7 million people across both World Wars who made the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield, ensuring they are never forgotten.

This article looks at the history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and its vital work today.

During gruelling and bloody First World War battles, great swathes of men would die with no possibility of a peaceful, family attended burial or headstone. Instead, they remained where they fell, and the soldiers who survived were forced to drag them away from the violence and bury them wherever they could.

"Imagine that churning battlefield on the Western Front. 

"Soldiers clashing in the mud and men being buried by their comrades as best they could." 

Historian and Interpretation Officer for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Max Dutton, spoke to BFBS broadcaster Mark McKenzie about how the idea of people dedicating their lives to making sure grieving relatives could visit their loved one's final resting place came about. He said:

"Into that wilderness, that landscape, came a man called Fabian Ware. 

"He went over with the British Red Cross and he saw graves in the corners of fields and he said, nobody's keeping an eye on these, nobody's telling loved ones back home where their sons and husbands final resting places are." 

LISTEN: Mark speaks to historian and Interpretation Officer for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Max Dutton

Fabian immediately petitioned the Red Cross to start recording graves given official recognition by the British Army in 1916. As a result, he was given the title of Head of the Graves Registration Unit, whose task was to record where service personnel were being buried. This gave loved ones a crucial link to lost partners, sons, brothers, uncles and friends. Eventually, that morphed into the Imperial War Graves Commission when Fabian asked: 

"Who's going to look after all these graves once this war is over?"

The Imperial War Graves Commission was founded by Royal Charter with Fabian Ware at its head on May 21, 1917, with the monumental task of caring for war graves worldwide. Speaking on Armistice Day 1938, Fabian was able to express the importance and magnitude of the work he was undertaking, saying: 

"I was able to record the real drawing together of those who had been enemies of one another in the Great War. 

"In drawing together in common Remembrance of their dead.  

"Their ten million dead."

After the Second World War, the commission was expanded for the recent conflict's vast numbers of fallen personnel. In 1960, the name was changed to Commonwealth War Graves Commission to remember all who died from the 54 countries of the Commonwealth.

Reburial of Lance Corporal Frederick Thomas Perkins Loos British Cemetery Credit Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Reburial of Lance Corporal Frederick Thomas Perkins at Loos British Cemetery in France

Who Made The CWGC What It Is Today? 

Fabian Ware was determined to ensure the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission after the First World War was of the highest standard. To do this, he brought together a remarkable group of creative minds. The architecture was by some of the most significant architectural minds of the time - Sir Edwin Lutyens, who designed the Cenotaph in London, and Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield. The inscriptions were written by Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book and the poem If. 

Of this, Mark said: 

"Kipling's involvement wasn't really surprising, given his family history." 

Kipling provided all the inscriptions for the Imperial War Graves Commission after the First World War. His son Jack Kipling, an Officer with the Irish Guards, was reported injured and missing in action in September 1915 during the Battle of Loos. Mark offered his thoughts on why Kipling chose to help the Imperial War Graves Commission, saying: 

"I always feel Kipling was doing it for him. In memory of his missing boy." 

LISTEN: Mark speaks to archivist Andrew Featherstone and CWGC Commemorations Manager Mel Donnelly

Commonwealth War Graves Commission Archives 

There is an astonishing amount of information to manage. For example, the CWGC holds records of 1.7 million people across both World Wars who died for commonwealth forces. 

CWGC archivist Andrew Featherstone spoke to Mark McKenzie about the fascinating stories behind each record and how the commission kept in touch with some families for decades after their loved ones died in battle. He described each record as "a real window to one family" before telling the story of Lt Morgan, a fallen soldier now buried in Canada. 

Lt Morgan was killed in 1915, but no one knew where his body was. From 1915 until 1955, his file was an ongoing correspondence with the sisters and the commission about their brother. He said: 

"He's actually found in 1931, but then that isn't the end of the story. 

"The sisters want to make sure it's actually him. Then they arrange to go over and attend his funeral service. 

"Every year, they send a wreath that the commission has to lay. 

"When you multiply that by 1.7 million, you get a sense of what took place in those two wars and the loss that was suffered by people." 

Headstone Production Credit Commonwealth War Graves Commission

There Is A Lot More Work To Be Done

Mel Donnelly is a manager in the CWGC commemorations team responsible for ensuring that every war casualty is suitably honoured and remembered by the commission. Their work focuses on who is to be commemorated, where that needs to take place and what form it will take. She said: 

"You would assume that the majority of the work of the commemorations team would have been completed long ago but it turns out, that's not the case." 

Since the centenary of the First World War, many people are more aware of their local war memorials or their own family's military history. This, in turn, has encouraged people to research their own family. When they find a name on a war memorial that doesn't appear in CWGC's records, they ask for it to be investigated. 

Morogoro Cemetery Tanzania Credit Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The CWGC has staff, supporters and volunteers in more than 150 countries and territories

What Is The Eligibility Criteria? 

Mel says that if someone was serving in a commonwealth military organisation during the two world wars and died, their death's cause and circumstance is immaterial. They are treated equally and would be commemorated by the commission no matter what. She said: 

"We do include people who were judicially executed and those who died of illnesses or wounds while they were serving. 

"We will also commemorate those who died after they had been discharged from a commonwealth military organisation, as long as their death is a direct result of that military service." 

The CWGC commemorates people who served in the Commonwealth armed forces during the First or Second World War, whose death: 

Was the result of: 

  1. Wounds inflicted or accident occurring during active service. 
  2. Disease contracted or commencing while on active service. 
  3. Disease aggravated by active service. 

What Are The Official War Periods Recognised By CWGC?

First World War | 4 August 1914 to 31 August 1921 (dates inclusive)

Second World War | 3 September 1939 to 31 December 1947 (dates inclusive)

Images And Video Credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

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